A few months back I wrote down my impressions from my latest trip to Belarus. The piece was titled “In Belarus a Maidan is only waiting to happen”. The reactions I got from our readers seemed encouraging and indeed even optimistic: they told me everything I had written was bullshit and some of them accused me of being a malicious foreign agent, putting my nose in business not mine, and wanting to sponsor regime change. They told me the country may have its problems but it would guard itself from outside influences and would be able to solve its problems without going the Ukraine way, because “young people in Belarus are educated and civilized”. I thought, maybe. After all, I had been in Belarus for less than a month and maybe I had been wrong all the way. I went to sleep feeling rather pleasantly relieved: I may have hastily written stupid stuff but at least things were not so bad as I had seen them.
Fast forward a few months: on the 25th of March, on “Den Voli” or “Freedom Day”, in Minsk and other Belarusian towns there were large demonstrations. The demonstrations resulted and in hundred of arrests and in part in brutal cracking down by the police, in best Belarusian tradition, and the event brought Belarus to the attention of the global community. Malcontent had been on the rise in Belarus over the last few weeks because of the recent controversial introduction of tax on parasitism, which every resident over 18 is obliged to pay if he has been out of work for at least 183 days over the last year. The tax amounts to 460 Belarusian rubles per year or roughly 230 €, and for a country where the average salary is around 360 € a month, this could be serious money.
Belarus is by many regarded as some anachronistic remnant of the old Soviet Union, with an economy largely controlled by the government, or some sort of European North Korea, a dictatorship protected only by a ruthless and abusive security apparatus. In spite of all that, it is not as if people very living in an ideological bubble, a parallel universe worshiping the god of President Lukashenka, zombified and brainwashed by government propaganda. On the contrary, they seemed to be very aware of the problems of their country, sometimes even a bit too self conscious about them, but while they are very open about these things in private, they are very careful about speaking their mind in public. After the 2010 election and the crackdown on the demonstrations that followed, thousands were arrested, students were deprived of their right to continue studying and the main opposition candidate challenging Lukashenka, who has been President since 1994, was thrown in jail. Lukashenka had won the election with the promise of minimum wage of $ 500 a month: this measure, however, arguably contributed to the rapid depreciation of the Belarusian ruble, which over the following three years lost two thirds of its value against the dollar and economic crisis has afflicted Belarus since, with interest rates reaching 20%. There seem to be enough reasons to be unhappy in Belarus. But does Belarus need a Maidan?
Ukraine had its much glorified “Revolution of Dignity” in February 2014, when it decided to position itself on the European path, allured by the promises of the EU association agreement: “just outside of Europe, people are dying for European values”, put it Andrew Wilson of the European Council of Foreign Relations, writing for the Guardian. Every revolution, if it wants to succeed, has to create its own myth, before people realize that a new elite has replaced the old elite and the system did not really change: the myth of the last Maidan revolution was that it gave Ukraine freedom (from whom? It has been absolutely independent since 1991) and European values, opening it to Europe and the West, the lighthouse of our progressive era (sometimes one is tempted to ask: is there life outside the West?). And what has this most glorious of revolutions brought about? The secession (or annexation, call it whatever you want, it does not matter) of Crimea, a war in the Donbass, a government even more corrupt that the one of Yanukovich, total surveillance by the SBU, the Ukrainian security services, all parvence of freedom of expression has been removed because of the emergency status of the “war with Russia”, an association agreement with the EU that promised to make Ukraine rich like Germany but actually saw Ukrainian exports to the EU collapse, and worst of all, a poisonous atmosphere that has infested a whole society, with families and friendships broken and destroyed by abstract disputes about politics.
Not that any of this makes any sense to the patriotic Ukrainians. They will see in this critic just “Russian propaganda”, the magic buzzword now used every time something collides with somebody’s ideal of the modern world. Of course, one can only understand these young Ukrainian hopeful souls, they just wanted, like all young people all over the world, want to have the best from this life to join the cool and trendy contemporary world, that it is to say the land of milk and honey, the West. And in a way they did, just without realizing that joining the free world meant that all of a sudden they were left to their own devices. The West, which for a variety of reasons arguably needed Ukraine more than Ukraine needed the West, has proven to be not all too committed in defending the righteous cause of the war of liberation Ukraine is heroically fighting against Russia, with Ukraine defending not only itself, but protecting the whole of Europe against Russian imperial ambitions.
People in Belarus, oppressed by increasing economic malaise, do not have any illusions about the nature of their government. Like in Ukraine, this vague longing for freedom often manifests itself in the form of rediscovery of one’s forgotten national origins, to the extent that the young fashionable Belarusian hypsterdom more and more expresses the desire to reappropriate its native language that they never spoke, Belarusian, as if to say: “We are not Russians, we are cool Europeans just like you”! It is ironic that to feel that they are becoming part of the global community Belarusians believe that they need to find their own little local identity. You would expect people in Belarus to have drawn some rational conclusions from the events of Ukraine: yes, change is badly needed, because who wants to live worse than his neighbour after all, and the current government needs to be accountable for its failing policies, but probably a violent government overthrow and a quarrelsome divorce from Russia would not make put us on the trajectory to progress and prosperity. This does not seem the case, however, because the government has clamped down on any sort of opposition for too many years, or so at least people seem to believe: people want change, but there seem to be no other way to achieve change than a violent break with the past. All this is of course seen with great interest and followed with enthusiasm by the West, which, while it does not want to engage itself too much, would jump at every opportunity to integrate Belarus too and to separate it from Russia. Young Belarusians would be happy and would tell their nephews in 30 years or so that they had their heroic hour when they fought the tyranny. And in fact, as is the case with Ukraine, myths are so powerful that it would not even matter if Belarus, obtaining its freedom, would eventually find itself worse off than ever before. Maidan is Belarus will probably not start tomorrow, but the ground is being sown and the atmosphere is rather tense.